The Dreaded Slush Pile

On this haunted Halloween, the only thing scarier than ghouls and goblins has to be the slush pile.

Photo Credit David Blaikie

When I first heard about the ‘slush edition’ at the annual When Words Collide conference, the idea sounded intriguing, exciting. In practice, it is intriguing and exciting, but also nerve-wracking and it plays havoc with your confidence.

What’s a Slush Pile?

At a number of writers’ conferences, you’ll likely see what they call the ‘slush pile’ or ‘slush edition’. Writers will submit the first page (or two) or their manuscript, a reader will read them aloud to the audience, and a panel of editors and/or agents will judge them. This is meant to simulate the slush pile at a publishing house – the manuscripts that are not solicited or submitted by agents. Anything that arrives in the slush pile typically gets a short window of opportunity. If it’s not gripping by the end of the first page, and editor can and will quickly axe it. It sounds harsh, but if you think of the volume of manuscripts they receive, commissioning editors need a way to prioritize, and if you didn’t pass the gauntlet of getting an agent, you’d better hope to wow them on page one.

As the orator reads your work, editors/agents raise their hands when they would stop reading. Your goal, as a writer, is for every hand to stay down. Depending on which conference you have, once a certain number of hands are raised, the reader stops. Some conferences only let one hand go up, then you’re done. The worst/best part, depending on if hands went up, is the feedback. Now, I do believe that there is a bit of ‘show’ that goes on at these conferences. Sometimes the editors/agents are pretty brutal, and considering the poor author is anonymously hiding in the crowd, that kind of sucks. But, if they like your work, fantastic!!!

My Experience

Last year I bit the bullet and submitted my first page of my first novel, Girl Tries Life. The session lasted an hour and page after page was read that wasn’t mine. My stomach was doing slow, tortuous somersaults and I felt awful. Had I been hooked up to a heart monitor, I’m pretty sure it would have been slightly alarming for a doctor.

And then… finally… my page came up. My opening line was pretty recognizable, especially for my writer friends. “Kate sneezed” is how it opens. Four lines in, the audience laughed. Good, good, that was a good sign – I write romantic comedies after all. I saw a twitch of a smile on an editor’s face.

As line after line was read, my pulse quickened. Please, I thought, please make it to the end. Every rustle of an editor was panic-inducing. Keep your hand down I urged silently.

I made it. Not a single hand went up, and for that I count myself very lucky. I have no doubts that part of the success of a page depends on the mood of the agents and editors. If they’re hungry, tired, exhausted… it’s probably not going to go well. Regardless, I made it. The feedback was extremely helpful and motivating, and here I am with a finished novel. Buoyed from the response, I will soon be sending my baby out into the world.

You Are Brave

I don’t care what type of personality you have or what you write, participating in a slush pile is a brave thing. I’ve seen people go into them with inflated confidence and fail, while others who quietly sneak in the back doors, they rock the audience. Regardless, you are brave. I would, however, encourage you to be supportive and respectful of everyone in that room. You don’t know who submitted what or how they feel about it. Don’t go in tooting your own horn, especially when the person next to you might be flipping out on the inside.

Should you take the risk? Why not? It’s an hour of your life and it’s valuable feedback. Just be prepared that you may want to go to the bar afterwards, one way or another.

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